Utah's Provo River gives anglers three world-class sections of trout water to fish. Now, where should you start?(May 2008)
Mark Adams shows off a nice brown trout from the lower Provo River. Browns make up about 70 percent of the catch, while rainbows and cutts account for the rest.
Photo courtesy of Trout Bums 2 Guide Service.
When out-of-state fly-fishing junkies start planning a weeklong sabbatical to the Beehive State, usually the first stop on their agenda is the distinguished Green River tailwater below Flaming Gorge Reservoir.
Some stretches hold 12,000 trout that average 16-plus inches per river mile, with the potential to hook a true-blue monster. The tailwater draws anglers from around the country. It's a place where many fly-fishing dreams have come true.
But the Green isn't the only stretch of river in Utah where dreams are made. For traveling anglers, the Provo River just might be one of the most overlooked and underrated trout destinations in the entire West.
As it flows through the scenic Wasatch Mountains, it offers nearly 30 miles of some of the best riffles, runs and pools imaginable, plus excellent numbers of trout and the opportunity to hook double-grippers as well.
The popular Versus television show "The Fly Fishing Masters" aired a three-day team tournament that was filmed on the Provo. Teams competed on various stretches of the river, and I watched with anticipation as Team Under Armour -- made up of Rick Hartman, George Daniel, Lori Ann Murphy and Lance Egan -- claimed the purse.
I was impressed with the numbers they caught, and the size of some of them wasn't too shabby either.
Brandon Bertagnole of Park City Outfitters said the Provo is way underrated.
"It's a small river compared to other big rivers like the Green or the Madison," said Bertagnole, "but for its size, it produces more fish than any other river in the West."
Fish numbers are outstanding, he said, and it's not uncommon for anglers to have 30- or even 40-fish days.
"About 80 percent of the clients we take to the Provo have little fly-fishing experience," he said. "But they still catch fish."
The guide attributes this to the sheer number of trout populating the river.
"He's right," said Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Officer Richard Hepworth. On average, the middle and lower Provo have about 3,500 trout per river mile, with about 90 percent being brown trout. For a river this size, those are excellent numbers.
Hepworth's most recent survey data show that the average angler hooks more than one fish an hour. That may not seem like much, but when you consider that this "average" angler catches eight to 10 fish a day, you can understand how those with experience on the water can enjoy those 30- and 40-fish days.
Not only are there lots of feeding mouths in the water, but their average size is about 12 to 14 inches. And according to guide Bertagnole, 16- to 18-inch trout are not uncommon.
Hooking into a 20-plus-incher is a real possibility.
Hepworth also said the Provo has the potential to crank out greater numbers of hefty trout. This self-admitted big-fish junky doesn't believe that it will happen until anglers start keeping fish in some stretches. In his opinion, there might be too many trout in some parts of the river, which in turn might be affecting their growth rate.
Catching good numbers of fish will make any angler smile. The opportunity just to hook a couple of 18- to 20-inchers in a day's fishing will keep you coming back.
In addition to numbers and sizes, this wade-walk river has excellent access. Except for a stretch in the upper section, the Provo is nearly all public and flows beside several highways 150, 189 and 32, which give virtually drive-up access to many sections of the river.
However, when you add good access, good numbers of trout and the population base of the Salt Lake City region -- about 2 million strong -- you can bet there will be no shortage of anglers. In fact, Hepworth said that during his research, he hadn't been able to find any Western river that receives as much fishing pressure as the Provo.
Some of his most recent data show that during the prime fishing season, March through July, anglers spent more than 12,000 hours on the river during the week and an additional 8,000-plus hours on the weekend.
Despite the crowds, anglers still catch large numbers of trout, and this may be the most unique aspect of the Provo.
Now that I've got you thinking about finding your own elbowroom on the Provo this season, let's take a closer look at what it has to offer.
It can be divided into three sections. And although they're all the same river, each section in this three-in-one system offers distinct differences for the angler to taste.
The upper Provo begins its journey as a trickle high in the Uinta Mountains. This is where the North Fork and South Fork collide with the main stem of the Provo to form this unique fishery. In these upper reaches, the first stretch of public fishing begins.
As the river and its tributaries flow through the scenic Wasatch Cache National Forest, it offers some excellent small-water fishing, complete with trout-filled riffles, runs and pockets.
This freestone holds a healthy population of browns, 'bows and native cutthroats that range from 6 to 12 inches, and -- as is typical of small-water trout -- they are opportunistic feeders. Having a box full of small dries is a must when you head here because it seems the residents are always looking up.
The best access is found along Mirror Lake Highway, Highway 150, and off Highway 32 out of Woodland. As these roads skirt both the main Provo and the South Fork, access is merely a parking spot away. The North Fork and the other smaller tributaries also offer good access from the numerous Forest Service roads. Because of the abundance of angling opportunities, it's best to stay several days to get the full flavor. And to help in this adventure, there are 10 campgrounds located along Mirror Lake Highway.
After the Provo leaves the Natio
nal Forest, it enters several miles of posted private land, and it is extremely difficult to get to. However, if you want to let loose a few greenbacks or let your silver tongue do the work for you, access is possible.
According to guide Harley Jackson of Trout Bum 2 Guide Service, this private stretch of river is incredible. Although his shop doesn't offer trips there, he's one of the lucky few who have access. He said that there are some dandy 16- to 18-inch trout in these waters, and some excellent hatches to boot.
Finishing up the upper section is the nearly two miles of access at Rock Cliffs State Park above Jordanelle Reservoir. This stretch of water can be blazing in early spring, around March and April, when the rainbows migrate out of the lake to spawn and then again in late fall, around October and November, when the browns migrate out of the lake to have their turn.
Though some anglers frown at the thought of hooking these spawners, if handled delicately, they do just fine.
The middle Provo is a tailwater that stands in stark contrast to its brother to the north. As it flows south between Jordanelle Reservoir and Deer Creek Lake, it offers more than 10 miles of excellent public access, and this is where you'll find some of the best public angling.
If you haven't been there in a few years, and you're looking to fish a completely new stretch of river, then the middle is for you.
In 1999, the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission embarked on a huge project. Its goal was to put the river back in its original channel. It took eight years of backbreaking work and more than $30 million, but the end result is a much better trout river. Side channels, braids, ponds and streamside vegetation are just some of the many aquatic features that were added to foster a healthier fishery.
Add this to the many riffles, runs and pools, and you have a fishery worthy of its Blue Ribbon status.
"From bend to bend, the middle Provo is an angler's playground," said Ryan Bunnell, general manager of Four Season Fly Fishers. "There isn't a boulder, riffle or pool that doesn't hold a good trout."
Bunnell's shop books about 500 trips a year on the Provo. After talking with him at length, it becomes obvious that he's passionate about this stretch of river. He said the middle Provo is an incredible, diverse fishery -- and that every flyfisher should fish it at least once.
One of the fruits of the restoration project is the renewed dry-fly fishing.
According to Bunnell of Four Seasons Fly Fishers, anglers are seeing better hatches of BWO, PMD, green drakes, stoneflies and more. The trout, as well as the anglers, are taking advantage of it.
"There are days when they seem to be looking up all day," he said.
Bunnell said the trout that swim here average between 12 to 14 inches, and it's not uncommon for his clients to hook a couple of 18-plus-inchers. But what makes the middle Provo so unique is that it provides inexperienced flyfishers an opportunity to catch good numbers of trout -- and head-hunters with an opportunity to hook a trout that will let them see its backing before they can see the fish.
Trout are netted throughout this entire stretch, but some of the more noteworthy areas are Lunker Lane, The Bunny Farm, Charleston and the Cottonwood. For the angler looking to lose some of the crowds, the Interior is another area that offers more than three miles of fishing, with access only at either end -- purposely created so that anglers looking for a little solitude might be able to hike a bit and find some.
Seven vehicle access points are located here, making it very user-friendly.
The most productive water in the lower Provo -- or Provo Canyon, as some refer to it -- starts at Deer Creek Reservoir and continues down to the Olmstead Diversion Dam.
Similar to the middle Provo, the lower is also a tailwater. But it's different because on average, the lower has more trout per river mile, and they tend to be bigger.
According to guide Mike Glenn of Intermountain Guide Service, there are some hefty trout swimming here.
Back in September, in fact, he hooked a 9-pound rainbow, and one of his guides once played a 19-pound brown. Although Glenn said trout this size aren't the norm, he insists that 18-inchers are common and ones pushing 20 inches are fooled regularly. The average trout stretches the tape to about 15 inches.
The variety of trout also sets this spectacularly scenic stretch of canyon apart from the middle. Browns make up about 70 percent. The rest are mainly healthy rainbows and a few cutthroats, giving the traveling angler a little more to write home about.
Another appealing aspect about this Blue Ribbon water is that it's a truly year-round fishery. Even when Mother Nature throws her worst winter, there always seems to be a hatch popping off.
Although fishing is really good all year, the canyon receives a lot of pressure during the busy summer months. Many anglers will be "standing in a river waving a stick," as John Gierach so eloquently put it. But rafters hit the river hard then as well. Despite this, anglers still bring excellent numbers of trout to net.
"What you have to do is get past the crowds mentally," said Glenn of Intermountain Guide Service.
"Chances are, you will not be alone too many times on the lower Provo."
If you're looking for numbers of fish, Glenn suggests hanging out from Vivian Park up to Deer Creek Lake. This nearly 6-mile stretch is full of some of the best riffles, runs and pools in the whole river system.
If you're looking for some overlooked water and maybe a chance at a true-blue monster, the guide said that you should spend time in the faster pocket water below the Olmstead Diversion Dam.
Here, the river gets narrower and faster. Anglers generally drive right on by. Look for the fatheads in the pockets and behind boulders.
Speaking of driving, access is also very easy here. Highway 189 skirts most of the section. Simply pull off, gear up and fish. You'll find numerous access points.
Every stretch of the Provo offers a variety of hatches. Some are better than others, but each section has that kind of prolific hatch that gets the residents looking up.
'¢ In the upper in May and June, it's the salmonfly. A good imitation to try is a No. 12 Sofa Pillow.
'¢ In the middle Provo, the green dra
kes start coming off in late June through July, and good matches are Nos. 10 to 12 Green Drakes.
'¢ In the lower, the most prolific hatch is the blue-winged olive, which starts popping off in March through April. Nos. 16 to 20 BWOs are your best bet.
Other hatches you should take note of are midges, which come off throughout the year; caddis flies, which start showing up in late May through September; tricos, which start popping off in late June through July; pale morning duns, which get fish looking up in June through September; and big golden stoneflies, which surface in May through June.